Card. Sako pained at Iraq’s Covid-19 hospital fire

Card. Sako pained at Iraq’s Covid-19 hospital fire

The Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church blames the tragedy on corrupt authorities who misappropriate public funds, depriving people of adequate services.

By Robin Gomes

The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church has expressed deep grief for 82 people killed in a massive blaze that erupted Saturday night in a hospital for Covid-19 patients in Baghdad, Iraq. The fire also injured 110 others.  The casualties included relatives tending to their patients.

“It was with great pain and sadness that we received the news, early morning, of a fire in Ibn Al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad, which is designated for treating people with the Corona pandemic, and the death of more than eighty people and the wounding of many,” Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, wrote in a condolence message on Sunday. 

Iraqi officials said the blaze, triggered by an exploding oxygen cylinder, swept through the intensive care unit of the hospital which tends exclusively to coronavirus patients with severe symptoms. As the death toll climbed, anxious relatives searched for those missing.

Corruption behind tragedy

Cardinal Sako described the tragedy as “a humanitarian and national disaster”, saying it “requires everyone to stand and show solidarity together to take the necessary measures to avoid such shameful disasters”.  “As a Church,” he said, “we affirm our full support for the efforts of the government, security forces and health personnel, and all Iraqis of goodwill in building peace, stability, unity and providing services, especially in these turbulent conditions as the region is full of conflicts.”  The patriarch concluded, invoking God’s mercy on the dead, the injured and on “Iraq to recover from its recurring crises”.

The patriarch, who visited the burnt hospital on Sunday, lamented the state of affairs in the country.  There has been no improvement in public services and their maintenance in the past 20 years, he said told Vatican News on Monday.  Iraq is a rich country but the funds go into the pockets of corrupt officials.  As a result, he said, people suffer because of inadequate services such as in hospital and schools, “which are in a miserable situation”.

He said she spoke with the prime minister and the president, who are ready to help the people, especially the families of the victims.  The Chaldean Church has donated $10,000 “as a sign of solidarity and closeness with the victims”.  Cardinal Sako said they are praying for the dead, the injured and for peace and stability in the country.  

Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi has said that widespread negligence on the part of health officials is to blame for the deadly fire. The government suspended key officials, including the health minister and the governor of Baghdad province. Other officials, including the director of the Ibn al-Khatib Hospital, were removed from their posts.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis, who has a special love for the strife-torn nation, also expressed his grief for the victims.  “I am also near to the victims of the fire in the hospital for Covid patients in Baghdad… Let us pray for all of them,” the Pope urged during his midday Angelus prayer on Sunday.

During his visit to Iraq last month, March 5-8, the first by a Pope to the Middle East country, the Holy Father donated $350,000 to the Chaldean Catholic Church to support local families affected by conflict and the pandemic.

The tragedy

Maher Ahmed, a nurse who was called to the scene Saturday night to help evacuate patients, said the flames overwhelmed the second-floor isolation hall of the hospital within three to four minutes of the oxygen cylinder exploding.  Most of those killed suffered severe burns, while others were overcome by smoke inhalation, unwilling to leave behind their coronavirus-afflicted relatives hooked up to ventilators, he told Associated Press.  It took firefighters and civil defense teams until the early hours of Sunday to put out the flames.

The tragedy came as Iraq struggles with a severe second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Daily virus cases now average around 8,000, the highest since Iraq began recording infection rates early last year. At least 15,200 people have died of coronavirus in Iraq among a total of at least 100,000 confirmed cases.